Upsets ruled the weekend in the first round of the NFL playoffs, with three road teams advancing. But upon further review, the Texans, Ravens and Bears weren’t the most fearsome of favorites to begin with, and all of them had some flaws exposed by more complete teams. Hindsight is so 20-20.
But the Divisional round is different. Home teams are supposed to dominate, and often do. It has been 10 years since the 2008 road teams won the weekend in the Divisional round, going 3-1 against the top-seeded clubs who were coming off a week of rest. In the subsequent nine postseasons, home teams went either 3-1 or 4-0 seven times in this round, winning an impressive 26 of 36 games (.722).
This for me makes for the best weekend of football on the entire NFL schedule: the four best teams over the long haul of the regular season pitted against four hot clubs that now have a taste of playoff success and want some more. You’ve got dangerous wild-card qualifiers like the sixth-seeded Colts and Eagles, who are basically playing with house money at this point, and the intriguing fifth-seeded Chargers, who are simply unbeatable outside of Los Angeles. Meanwhile, in Kansas City, New Orleans, Los Angeles and New England, the entire season has been building up to this, with all of them eager to atone for playoff defeats suffered last year.
What a quarterbacking bonanza we’re in for this weekend. The likely MVP of the league, Patrick Mahomes, will make his playoff starting debut in Arrowhead against the resurgent Andrew Luck of the Colts. In Foxboro, 41-year-old Tom Brady will be seeking his remarkable 28th postseason win, while the Chargers’ Philip Rivers tries to beat No. 12 for the first time ever. Drew Brees will duel with the magic man, Nick Foles, in the Superdome. And third-year Rams starter, Jared Goff, will be seeking what third-year Cowboys starter, Dak Prescott, earned last Saturday night, his first career playoff victory.
As an aside, does anyone else find it curious that all four first-round winners are playing in the same time as last week, or is that just the omnipotent NFL looking out for the sanctity of competitive balance? Whatever the case, the matchups are all prime-time pairings, no matter where they fall on this weekend’s schedule. Bring it on.
Last week: 1-3 (.250); Season: 163–95 (.632).
No. 6 Indianapolis (11-6) at No. 1 Kansas City (12-4)
You don’t have to tell a Chiefs fan Kansas City is a ghastly 0-4 at home in the Divisional round when earning one of the top two seeds, a streak that dates to 1995 and the Marty Schottenheimer era. But this is Patrick Mahomes at quarterback and that changes everything, right? Maybe. The Colts offense is really balanced and if they can get running back Marlon Mack rolling again like he was in Houston, it’ll help keep Mahomes off the field and shorten the game in Indy’s favor.
The Chiefs defense will give up some points and yardage, but Kansas City should be able do its typical damage on the scoreboard as well. It’ll be a close, back-and-forth game, but having Mahomes and the home-field edge should give the Chiefs the slightest edge. When the game’s on the line, the second-year Kansas City quarterback will make the play that saves the day.
Winner: Kansas City
No. 4 Dallas (11-6) at No. 2 Los Angeles (13–3)
I love the history of this postseason rivalry. From 1973 to 1985, the Rams and Cowboys met in the playoffs eight times in that 13-year span, splitting 4-4. Roger Staubach and Pat Haden are nowhere around, but 33 years later we get the tiebreaker, under the lights at the historic Los Angeles Coliseum. The Cowboys game plan will be to run Ezekiel Elliott right at the Rams underachieving rush defense and hope Los Angeles has no answer.
Those two December losses — to the Bears and Eagles — made everyone a little shaky on Jared Goff, but here’s where Sean McVay’s influence, play-calling and a week’s worth of film study should make a difference in his quarterback’s game. The Rams have to grab an early lead and let Goff settle in and find his rhythm, using the aggressiveness of the Dallas defense against itself. The Cowboys won’t play as well on the road as they did last week at home, and Los Angeles will collect the franchise’s first playoff win since 2004.
Winner: Los Angeles
No. 5 Los Angeles Chargers (13-4) at No. 2 New England (11-5)
The Patriots are 7-0 in their past seven Divisional-round home games, but this time they drew no opponent from the Cupcake Division. The Chargers are legit, and they won’t be intimidated by Gillette Stadium after winning in five different time zones this season, going 9-0 when they play outside of Los Angeles. Then again, the Patriots were the NFL’s only 8-0 home club this season, and they’ve won 15 consecutive home games since falling in Week 4 to Carolina last season. So there are stats to back up both team’s invincibility.
But at some point, I think the travel and perhaps the frosty weather will catch up to the Chargers on Sunday. They’re trying to become the first team since the 1989 Rams to travel coast-to-coast for consecutive playoff games, winning both. It’s not an easy trick, and beating the Patriots after a bye week is another statistical improbability to deal with. New England will have to play its best game and protect Tom Brady at all costs, and the Patriots can’t afford to get behind and have to play catch up against that talented Chargers defense. In the end, New England knows how to win the tough games in January, and one more trip to the AFC Championship game is on the way.
Winner: New England
No. 6 Philadelphia (10-7) at No. 1 New Orleans (13-3)
Much like the Colts and Chargers, I’m totally buying that the Eagles could pull the upset and by Monday morning make us question how we ever doubted them? But the Saints at home in a game they really need is a tough thing to pick against. New Orleans looks to be the most Super Bowl-ready team in the NFC, and the Eagles, as well as they are playing on both sides of the ball, probably don’t have enough firepower to match points with Drew Brees all game long.
The Nick Foles factor is obviously the great unknown, and perhaps equalizer. Foles didn’t play when New Orleans blew out Philadelphia 48-7 in November, sinking the defending champions’ record to 4-6. But he’s playing now, and the Eagles are a different team because of it, with both their offensive and defensive lines healthy and getting the job done. Philadelphia will make the Saints sweat, but New Orleans will stand up to this major playoff stress test and make it a clean sweep for the home teams this weekend.
Winner: New Orleans